Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The NHL Since The Lockout- Part 2: Where Do We Go From Here

“It’s easy to find a problem. It’s harder to solve it.”

After seeing what the NHL since “The Lockout” has produced, it’s time now to see where the NHL should go in the coming years if it wants to improve its game. We’re all essentially of the opinion that the NHL has a better game this year than it did seven years ago, but even there, the league has a lot of work to do if it wants to maintain its forward momentum. Here’s my rundown for what the NHL needs to moving forward.

Fix the penalty standard. It pains me to write this after having so much hope in 2005-06, but it’s becoming obvious that refereeing in the league is again becoming uneven. It’s hardly at the stage it was before “The Lockout” but unless we act now, we are in danger of it slipping to that point.

It’s not a difficult solution either- all that is needed is a clear directive to each referee on what constitutes each foul. For example, hooking should be called if it’s clear the defender has his stick in an attacker’s midsection with the blade wrapped around his torso, as if he’s using his stick as, well, a hook. Holding should only be called if it’s clear the player’s jersey (or stick) is actually being tugged; and if a stick corrals a player’s leg and hauls him down, that’s tripping. Very simple stuff.

While we’re at it, we really need to clean up this “trip and a dive” nonsense. Either it’s tripping or it’s a dive- you can’t have both. I know there are some cases where a player embellishes a foul so it’s actually called, but, more often than not, these “trips and dives” combinations feature- clearly- one or the other, not both. Soccer doesn’t make these kind of combination calls- it either calls a foul or a dive- and a directive of that nature in hockey would curb a lot of confusion the combination calls tend to generate.

Finally, the league needs to agree on its standard once and for all, and not pledge to call only certain parts of the rule book over others. I know the obstruction crackdown was effective, but those kind of actions only work if they’re temporary and irregular. Lately, the league has fallen in love with crackdowns, which leaves players, coaches, fans and, yes, the referees, confused on what is supposed to be called. The rule book isn’t made so that only parts of it should be called- it’s made so that *all* of it should be called, and called regularly. It makes a mockery of the rulebook- and, ultimately, the sport itself- if certain parts are ignored or inconsistently applied (because what’s the point of having a rule if it won’t be enforced?). Therefore, we need a clear and consistent standard for each of the rules in the rulebook, and have them regularly enforced (to the best of our abilities). The players, coaches and the fans deserve no less.

Find a better solution for violence than the “head shot” ban. This is a corollary to the above point (because solving violence *is* a rulebook issue), but it is important enough that it deserves its own segment. I’ll admit this much- the fact the NHL tried to address the issue of “head shots” is a step in the right direction, because at least it means they’re proactive about ending violence. That’s where the good news ends though.

Once again, the move is another case of the NHL creating a rule because it was incapable of enforcing the rules they already have. In 1991, the NHL thought too many goaltenders were being “run over” so they decided that they’d prohibit any player from getting anywhere near the goalcrease; ignoring the fact that “goaltender interference” was already a penalty. We saw how well the “man in the crease” rule worked.

Now, we have the “head shot” ban, or a ban on “a lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact (emphasis mine).” Note that the wording doesn’t ban “hits to the head” specifically, meaning that a (no pun intended) head-on collision would still be allowed. This means that the only hits to the head that wouldn’t be allowed are hits players don’t expect, which is already covered in another rule- “checking from behind”. You may have heard of it.

Perhaps this duplication won’t be a duplicity if it’s actually effective, but if history is any indication, it won’t be. Simply put, the NHL can have a minor, major and match penalties under this new rule (as will be the case) but it won’t mean anything if- like the rest of its rules- it’s haphazardly applied. Again, the call goes out to create firm standards and actually enforce them, including strictly-defined suspensions, because only then will the violence be curbed. The sole reason why players feel the need to “police themselves” is because the league does a poor job of doing it themselves- so now is time for them to take back control.

Are we going to get rid of violence entirely? Probably not, because cementheads are a fact of life and doubtless transgressors will find their way into hockey uniforms like they always have. What we do need, however, is a better atmosphere for the players to participate in. They need to be able to step on the ice knowing that they’ll be safe. Sure, hockey is a physical sport and injurious hits are still going to happen- physics, awkward balances and differing player sizes mean they’re unavoidable. However, players should not step on the ice feeling like they’ll be “targeted” or that they’ll receive cheap shots and that’s not the case now (otherwise, “policemen” wouldn’t have a job). We do that by ensuring that suspensions are meaningful and regularly enforced (meaning that a grievous hit from behind is always the same amount of games regardless of whether or not a star player levied that hit) and that the dangerous penalties- charging, cross-checking, roughing, boarding, etc.- are also called regularly on the ice (like the other non-dangerous penalties). It’s amazing that despite the faster speeds charging penalties are so rare (you would think the faster game would mean there’s more charging but we haven’t seen that yet), so this is an oversight that needs to be addressed. Above all else, the NHL needs to have a better and firmer policy for policing on-ice actions if it’s serious about protecting the players- otherwise, it will be left with no players left to play.

Develop a saner salary structure. If the summer of 2005 wasn’t the first summer after “The Lockout” and the “Summer of Anticipation of Crosby and Ovechkin”, it may have gone down as the “Summer of Moves”. As a corollary to the new salary cap structure and the allowances of teams to buy out players without penalty for a short time immediately following the resumption of NHL business, many players found themselves with new teams, the most notable being Chris Pronger becoming an Edmonton Oiler, Paul Kariya becoming a Nashville Predator and Peter Forsberg becoming a Philadelphia Flyer. There was palpable excitement in the air that the salary cap would bring glory to any team that dared to dream, and the theory of the cap- shown in the histories of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association- was that player movement, even for marquee players, would be frequent. Instant success could really just be a season away.

Instead, the NHL has seen a plethora of super long term deals signed by “franchise” players. First there was Rick DiPietro signing a monstrous 15-year deal worth $67 million in September of 2006. Then Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million pact in October of 2007. Neither deal expected to create a trend, as the DiPietro deal was soundly criticized and, with Ovechkin being exceptionally rated in NHL circles, the Capitals were seen as locking up a unique player to a unique contract. They’d only be harbingers for things to come.

The ball got rolling in 2009, as “creative” General Managers found a generous loophole in the salary cap. Since a player’s “cap hit” is based on the average yearly amount over the course of the contract (for example, if a player signs a $10 million contract over two seasons the cap hit is always $5 million for those two seasons, even if the player’s actual salary is $2 million in Year One and $8 million in Year Two), GMs realized that if they signed players to monstrously long contracts- with deals that are “front-loaded”- they can keep the cap hit down while giving the player the salary that he deserves. Marian Hossa was the first to receive such a deal, signing for an unfathomable 12 years and $62.8 million with the Chicago Blackhawks, with $59.3 million due in the first eight years. Then Chris Pronger- 34 at the time of the signing- received a seven-year contract extension from the Flyers with only a paltry $500,000 per season due to him in the final two years, where Pronger will be in his forties. The madness didn’t end there, as Henrik and Daniel Sedin received identical, front-loaded 11-year deals from the Vancouver Canucks (meaning the Sedins are locked up until they’re 40), Roberto Luongo received a similar 12-year pact from the Canucks, Marc Savard received a front-loaded seven year extension from the Boston Bruins (meaning Savard is signed until he’s 39) and, finally, the Blackhawks (to come full circle) extended Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith for more than ten years, all with front-loaded deals and all players the Blackhawks weren’t expected to retain but only managed to do so with this newfound “cap trick”.

What is the theory behind this manoeuvre? Let’s look at Hossa’s deal as an example. Hossa’s deal with Chicago sees Hossa getting paid $7.9 million for the next six seasons (after being paid that in the previous year), but Hossa’s cap hit is $5.23 million, because- as you might recall in grade school arithmetic- lower numbers at the end of the contract add up with the higher ones at the start of it to lower the overall yearly average. In the seventh year after this one and the eighth year of the deal (2016-17), Hossa’s salary decreases to $4 million with further decreases to $1 million two years after that (2017-18 and 2018-19) and another decrease to $750,000 in 2019-20 and 2020-21, when the deal expires. The Blackhawks’ likely “official” reasoning behind the lower numbers at the end is that Hossa will be 42 when the contract expires, by which point the Blackhawks won’t want to pay Hossa the millions he’s owed now (it’s also likely by his 42nd birthday Hossa won’t even be a Blackhawk- he’ll be a Norfolk Admiral, by which point the $5.23 million cap hit can be spent on other players).

Of course, the real reason why Hossa is paid so little at 42 is because no one believes he’ll actually be playing at that point; and, because the cap hit is wiped out upon retirement, Chicago isn’t likely to be on the hook for $5.23 million by the time the 2017-21 part of the contract rolls around (an important consideration, as if Hossa is still around at 42, that cap hit becomes unbearable since he’ll likely not be worth it at that stage). The same reasoning is likely true behind the deals for Pronger, Luongo, the Sedins, Toews, Keith, Kane and Savard, meaning, in effect, the teams have “cheated” the cap hit. If, for example, Hossa’s cap hit is based upon the years he’ll presumably play- that means all the years up to and including 2016-17, when Hossa will be 38- it would really be $7.14 million, almost $2 million more than what his cap hit actually is.

I personally didn’t think- logically- we’d see this trend. I can understand from a fan’s perspective they’d want their superstars sticking around for a long time, and they don’t want their teams’ ability to capture a Stanley Cup hindered by a monstrous cap hit, so these front-loaded, monstrously long deals are a good compromise, since it won’t compromise the team’s overall cap situation. I can also understand- perhaps- why an owner would want to sign a player this long, because I think if you had a franchise guy you wouldn’t want him leaving your team anytime soon either. However, from a player’s perspective, I can hardly imagine why they’d want to sign as long as they have. A role player might appreciate the commitment because their interchangeableness means they get shipped around a lot so they’ll accept any situation, even if it’s unfavourable, but a superstar earned the right to leave such a situation. Yes, Duncan Keith can talk all he wants about how great the Blackhawks’ organization has been to him and how great his team and his teammates has been, but he’s speaking in the now, not in the future. As the Dany Heatley situation illustrated, organizational situations can change in a hurry, and if I was Keith- who signed after L’Affaire Heatley and undoubtedly knows more about it than even those in the press do- I would want to have the flexibility to leave such a situation if I so chose. Sure, he can hold out and request a trade, but that only goes as far as the Blackhawks’ management’s willingness to go through with that, and it doesn’t always work out in the player’s favour- ask Alexei Yashin if he’d like to hold the Ottawa Senators ransom again. I suppose, ideally, as a superstar I’d only want one-year deals ‘cause they’d be the most flexible, but that’d be a slap in the face to the fans of the team I’d be on, so I’d make a commitment, but it should only be four, five maybe even six years- giving me a chance to settle but also the ability to leave the team if the team isn’t going anywhere. Sure, that kind of stability may be nice, but teams can change so fast, and there’s no guarantee that the 2014-15 Blackhawks will be as good as the current Blackhawks are, even with Kane, Toews and Keith. Three players does not a team make, and there’s no guarantee those guys will always love playing in Chicago, especially if the coaches or management change.

Fortunately, the NHL is taking action, nullifying the New Jersey Devils’ monstrous 17-year, $102 million, front-loaded deal with Ilya Kovalchuk, because the NHL didn’t think Kovalchuk will realistically play at the end of the deal, when he’ll be 44 (current Devils coach and former player John MacLean is 45). However, I’m not quite sure there is a solution to this conundrum quite yet. Kovalchuk’s case was a clear-cut violation (though it raises eyebrows about why the NHL didn’t void the other deals), but I’m not sure- logically- there’s any other reason to void a long-term contract. Keith is certainly within his rights to have a 13-year deal if he so chooses to have one (and, presumably, he will play out this contract because he’s signed until he’s 38) and I don’t think the NHL can, realistically, take away that right- the players are probably not going to accept it. Perhaps the only solution would be to have the salary cap calculated based on the player’s actual salary that season (as opposed to the average), with the “buyout cap hit” (which takes into account the average salary, with a higher actual salary giving the buying out team a credit) being the only part of a player’s contract that’s actually balanced against the cap. You can then prohibit teams from arbitrarily raising salaries to get favourable buyouts by forcing them to use the salary of the season that was just completed, meaning that if a player gets a raise, he’ll have to play at least one year with it. Failing that, the NHL would have to resort to trying to get maximum contract lengths in the next CBA, which may be a tall task.

Don’t increase the size of the nets- find other solutions to expand offence. The topic of net size came up prominently during “The Lockout” as a way to increase scoring in the game but was not implemented because hockey officials wanted to see if the commitment to the rulebook would increase scoring on its own. After a few seasons, though, rumblings began to emerge again about net size, because although scoring went up, it didn’t go up as much as NHL types might have thought.

The argument for bigger nets goes something like this: the size of the NHL goal- four feet by six feet- has remained unaltered since the NHL started play in 1917. However, the size of the player has grown since that time, and thus, because today’s players are bigger, the nets should be as well. Plus- goes the argument- there aren’t any goals that go in off the wing, unless the goaltender “whiffed” on it.

Ostensibly, it’s a logical conclusion, but the reality is that it’s a lazy argument that shows a profound lack of understanding about the game of hockey. I need not bring up the “sanctity of the game” argument because that should be readily apparent- meddling with the size of the net is like meddling with the offside rule, it just shouldn’t be done. Furthermore, increasing the size of the nets means that we are forcing the goaltenders to have to relearn their entire craft while facing the potential of otherwise marginal or unremarkable shooters banging 60-goal seasons because the size of the net makes it impossible for them to miss. This also brings us to the “slippery slope” argument- what happens when goaltenders “learn” the nets and scoring again plummets? Are we just going to make the nets even bigger? Why not make it as big as the end boards, if that’s how much larger they’ll eventually get? The more one thinks about this idea, the sillier and more dangerous it gets.

The real reason why there aren’t any goals coming off the wing is because of the size of the goaltenders’ equipment as well as the proliferation of “butterfly” style goaltenders in the last 25 or so years. Go look at a picture of Patrick Roy in his early days and compare it to Roy in his later years and see the difference- Roy couldn’t possibly get *that* much bigger as he got older, could he? Today’s goaltenders have “shrunk” a little since Roy retired in 2003, but not by much, and I still think they can get much smaller. I have a hard time believing that reducing the size of the equipment endangers safety, because most of the “size” in the goaltenders come from their “ten sizes too big” sweaters and not from anything else. This is because the main problem is that the jersey size makes sightlines toward the net problematic, and thus if we reduce the size of the sweaters- so that they’re actually snug- then we’ll return some of those sightlines and- eventually- goals.

That won’t solve all the problems unless we deal with the way the game as changed with regards to goaltending technique. Roy is credited with popularizing the butterfly technique, which takes advantage of the fact goaltenders can move out of their crease to challenge an onrushing shooter. Since they’re “programmed” to go down as soon as the puck hits them, they’re better able to deal with the five-hole than the traditional “stand-up” goaltenders could, and by being so far out of their crease, they’ve already taken away the top part of the net, leaving shooters with no sightlines. Therefore, it may be time to enact a rule whereby goaltenders are forbidden from leaving the crease unless they are playing a dump-in or have the puck on their stick, because this would give onrushing shooters some net to look at since the goaltender can’t come out all the way and take away those views. Coupled with the restriction on jersey sizes, there wouldn’t be a goaltender able to take away the sight of the *entire* net like they can now, which gives shooters more options and should- hopefully- produce more goals.

The other part of the equation is that coaches and players need to be more inventive themselves. Far too often teams play defensive styles with an overemphasis on proper positioning and not getting “caught” too far up ice that several offensive opportunities are being lost. It’s not like the chances aren’t there- shortly after he retired in 2006, Brett Hull remarked that there are so many “open holes” that players weren’t seeing- it’s just that, it appears, there are too many coaches that aren’t inventive enough to seize them. It doesn’t have to come at the expense of defence either- the players have proven they’re capable enough defensively, so it shouldn’t be too hard to teach them “responsible offence”. The players, too, also need to be more creative- if, as mentioned in the previous paragraph- lots of goaltenders are moving out of their crease to “challenge” shooters, perhaps the shooters shouldn’t just blindly shoot at the goaltender but cut in towards the middle, challenge the covering defender (perhaps drawing a penalty) and deke out the now out of position goaltender (if another player is up in support of the rush, they too can move into the middle or behind the net to confuse coverage schemes). I know some players already do this, but not enough of them do- and, strangely enough, these guys who “go to the net” are praised. It’s advice more players need to heed.

Lastly, the other part of the offensive equation is simply patience. Let’s not forget we’ve only had five drafts since the NHL stepped up its rule enforcement (the 2005 Draft doesn’t count because even those players were drafted before NHL GMs knew how effective the crackdown would eventually be), so we’ll need some time for the “old guard” to effectively be replaced. We don’t know how well the crackdown will work until most of the NHL was drafted in this atmosphere, because by then most of the players will be operating under this style of play instead of the way it is now where most of the players were developed under “the old system”.

Get on ESPN. I probably can’t make this any clearer: the experiment on Versus has failed. Miserably. It was clear that the NHL signed the deal in 2005 because hockey had slid so far down the sports scene that it had to take any deal it could get- including the “revenue sharing” agreement it has with NBC. A lot has changed since then, including the fact that hockey is far more marketable now than it was five years ago, and thus there has to be a greater push to get hockey on TV sets that matter- with TV people that are capable, for a change; and we do that by going on ESPN.

I know ESPN has its critics. However, let’s consider the case of Versus first. Their hockey coverage has ranged from “barely passable” to “beyond abysmal” right from the start, with the rating averaging closer to the bottom than the top. Most of their announcers sound like they’ve been pulled right from WWE Raw (I’m looking at you Joe Benanadi...), with most of their analysts shouting out of their lungs to cover the fact they’re not saying anything of relevance (let alone anything of intelligence). This says nothing of the channel hockey is on. I know Versus has actually added some programming of significance (like some mid-major college football games), but, overall, it hasn’t changed much from a channel that focuses a lot on rodeos, fly fishing and cage fighting...and, oh, some hockey. Nothing against those sports at all, but nobody would think of Versus as a “major sports channel” with that line-up.

The alternative- since there only is one- is ESPN, “the worldwide leader in sports”. Yes, it’s true that even when hockey was on ESPN it was treated as more of an afterthought (their package of announcers and analysts weren’t *that* much better than Versus, and I find few who have great things to say about Barry Melrose), but ESPN essentially “controls” the sporting viewership landscape in the United States. All of the sports ahead of hockey- baseball, basketball and football (heck, even golf and tennis) - are televised in some capacity by ESPN (basketball even has its finals on ESPN’s parent company, ABC) and, predictably, those are the sports that hog the limelight on SportsCenter. Even when hockey was on ESPN it received more coverage than it receives now, and coverage has actually increased since “The Lockout” (mainly whenever Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin play). Imagine the coverage they’d receive if their games were on their network.

Even the perceived “complication” of the Winter Classic (one of the few victories the NHL has had since “The Lockout”) isn’t much of one when you consider the TV landscape in 2011 (when the NHL’s current deal with Versus and NBC ends). By that time, all of the college bowl games- including the big ones- will be on ABC and ESPN, so a switch to ABC/ESPN for hockey will mean the Classic won’t clash with the bowl games- in fact, it may even compliment them: the Rose Bowl traditionally begins at 5PM; the Classic should be finished then. That should be a mouth water proposition for any sports programmer- as well as those of us lying on the couch recovering from our New Year’s hangovers.

Solve “The Canadian Question”. Ever since “The Lockout” increased the viability of franchises previously thought to be lost (don’t forget how badly the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals were doing in 2004, plus we’ve seen the rise of the previously inept Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators), we’ve been bombarded with pleas for the NHL to expand back into Canada, more specifically Hamilton, Quebec City and Winnipeg. The latter two once had NHL teams, while Hamilton has been a bridesmaid for a team ever since Copps Coliseum was built in 1985. The movement gained steam after the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets departed in the mid-1990s, bringing a deluge of incessant gossip with “(insert southern team here) moving to (insert Canadian city here)” reports coming up almost every week, culminating with the recent saga of the Phoenix Coyotes, that has Canadian hockey fans all crying “Wolf” at each instance. More recently, the overaggressive exploits of Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsille meant the city of Hamilton flirted with having a team for a number of years; whereas TSN did a special called “Why Not Canada” that discussed the very issue of expansion into Canada, taking a closer look at the cases of these three cities (as well as Toronto, which only comes up when disgruntled Leaf fans start discussing how terrible they’ve had it for over 40 years).

Now, while I do take issue with the study with regards to Winnipeg (it concludes that a new Winnipeg team might have difficulties surviving long term because of a lack of corporate presence in the city, conveniently forgetting the rest of the province and just how rabid the fanbase is), the study confirms what most of us already know- Canada is severely underserved as a hockey market. When 31% of league revenues come from Canada when the league is only 16% Canadian, it underscores just how much north of the 49th parallel is underserved.

There are two things that need to be considered with regards to this “Question”. First of all, I doubt we’d even be talking about this issue if the Nordiques and Jets stayed where they were instead of moved, because it wasn’t until then that we really saw the Canadian hockey media wrap itself in a Canadian patriotic jingoism that fed into the insecurities of Quebec and Winnipeg; and this “Question” is really a by-product of that. Furthermore, there is debate about how precisely this question should be addressed- should teams be moved or should the NHL just simply add more teams?

The former has been the subject of numerous debates since “The Lockout”. Just about every team south of the Mason-Dixie Line has been implicated in moves northward, from the “usual suspects” in the Carolina Hurricanes, Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Phoenix Coyotes to, more recently, teams like the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues that suddenly find themselves in ownership problems. It’s also not just teams in the South that are facing the prospects of moving vans- the very northern (but very football) city of Columbus faces the prospect of losing the Blue Jackets after reports came out last year that the team has lost $80 million since it was founded in 2000 due to a faulty lease.

Does it follow, then, that all or some of those teams should be moved north of the border? I know we’ve been facing viability questions with these teams for well over a decade, but the truth is there isn’t a single team that one could consider a “sure-fire” candidate to move. Each of these teams oscillate between success and failure, indicating that- despite “popular” belief- there *is* a market for hockey in the South, it’s just oversaturated. Just off the top of my head, my feeling is that the Atlanta-Nashville-Carolina corridor is best served by one team (my case is for Atlanta, the largest city of the three) and that Florida should only be served by one team (perhaps the Panthers, because they play in the largest city in Florida, Miami), with the rest of the teams staying put- Phoenix may have its viability problems, but it’d be a large market to lose, plus it serves the NHL’s visibility needs in the Southwest interior. However, that’s just my ad-hoc study- the NHL will need to take a serious look at this issue and determine which teams it needs to keep and which ones just have to go, because the NHL can’t support all of them.

This leaves the topic of expansion, a topic the NHL appears skittish to discuss at the moment (and perhaps with good reason, given the quality of the game at the moment...). Obviously this is preferable considering this means no teams are lost, but with three markets that, in the immediate future, should be served- Winnipeg, Quebec and Hamilton- and only, realistically, two slots to assign (because a 33 team league is absurd)- one of these cities will likely be left in the dark. The snap judgement here is that Quebec and Winnipeg should be the two new teams considering all the hurdles Hamilton will have to pass (which includes overcoming the bad effects brought on by Balsille’s overtures), but that won’t be an easy sell to a city that has had to endure so many broken promises of a team for at least the past 25 years.

Regardless of the path, it’s patently clear that the NHL needs to move on this Question, and quickly. The league has talked a lot about wanting to “correct the problems of the past”, which is noble, but all those words are meaningless without actions. Yes, perhaps the characterization of Gary Bettman as “anti-Canadian” may strike at the issue a little too deeply, but the criticism has been deserved and it will only get worse the longer the league holds out on restoring teams to Canada. Otherwise, Canadians may turn to another league (the KHL, anyone?) or create one of their own, leaving the NHL behind, which will be the mistake that will be the league’s death knell- a result the NHL should work to avoid.

The international game needs to grow. Last- but not least- is the international game. Suffice to say, one of Bettman’s few real accomplishments since he became Commissioner is the growth of the international game from a curious afterthought to an intently followed competition. Much of the growth here stems from the presence of NHL players at the Olympics, of which we have seen four editions- 1998 in Nagano, 2002 in Salt Lake City, 2006 in Turin and just this past year in Vancouver. Each time the foray has been a success, with viewership hitting records each time. Just this past Olympics, the Gold Medal Game was watched by the most Americans and Canadians in hockey history, an indication of just how valuable the Games have proven to be. Unfortunately, this growth is threatened by the NHL’s non-committal to Sochi in 2014, meaning all these moves forward could all prove worthless.

Committing to 2014 goes without saying, and should be the first move going forward in continuing the international game’s growth. What would aid it is increasing the visibility of the international game, a topic I wrote about in May. In that article, I proposed the creation of “regional championships” to compliment the Olympic tournament, as well as requiring teams to go through a several months long qualification tournament in order to participate in those major tournaments. The format would be similar to the format of soccer’s World Cup, where qualification begins two years before the Cup and involves national teams playing once every month or so to build up results that earn them qualification.

The benefits of such a tournament should be apparent. Instead of only getting a few weeks’ worth of Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Mike Richards, Brendan Morrow, Shea Weber, Jonathan Toews, Chris Pronger and Roberto Luongo on the same team, you’d get to see them several more times during the year, in games that actually matter for something, a tantalizing prospect for any hockey fan. Not only that, but it’d allow the smaller nations the chance to show off their talents more often, exposing the hockey world to players that were previously unknown (several members of the 2004 European champion Greek soccer team wound up getting lucrative careers after their surprise run). Plus, it’d allow us to see fierce international rivalries more often- we’d be guaranteed to see Canada-U.S., Sweden-Finland and Czech Republic-Slovakia at least once a year, if not more, and I don’t know a hockey fan that wouldn’t want to see that.

The issue then becomes integration. NHL owners are too quick to whine about how the Olympics compact the schedule and needlessly tire out the players (though it bears noting that several Olympians were playing significant roles in the Cup Final this year), so the thought of having to shut down the schedule for three days every month or so to allow these qualification games to take place will likely be a hassle. There is also the issue of “national depth”- a European championship would be very easy to create, considering how many hockey playing nations are on that continent, but after that, membership is scant elsewhere (43 of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s 68 members are European, 44 if you count Russia). Not only that, but if we stayed the course geographically, a “North American Championship” would feature Canada and the U.S. taking turns at how many pucks they can fire into the Mexican net before battling for the championship themselves. Extending the championship to the rest of the Americas includes just Argentina and Brazil- enough said.

Thus, if we’re going to do this correctly we’ll first need the full commitment of the owners and the players on this issue so they can calibrate the schedule the right way; and we’ll have to find a way to create a suitable “regional championship” for Canada and the U.S. to participate in (because I don’t believe we can just have the Olympics, and the regional tournaments would replace the obsolete yearly IIHF championship). I believe this is best done by bringing in Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, the Baltic countries and the rest of the IIHF members in the world to create a “Continents” tournament (or however you want to call it) which would bring the number of “decent” national teams in this group to ten (in addition to Canada, the U.S. and Russia, there are former Olympic stalwarts Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Japan and Kazakhstan, plus Lithuania and South Korea produce NHL players); which would run until hockey grows to the point where other continents can feasibly have their own tournaments.

That is a debate for another day- what’s more important is that now that we have national teams creating a buzz, we need to have them play far more often, and far more regularly. Fans shouldn’t have to wait four years to see their national heroes perform on a grand stage- that’s too long of a wait. The IIHF and the NHL can take notes at how massive soccer’s World Cup and Euro tournaments have gone and would do well to heed that model. It also wouldn’t require massive amounts of change- just a few days’ break in the schedule every few months for the qualification games and a week or so earlier of a start in a regional championship or Olympic year (I know the thought of hockey games in September isn’t appealing, but we’ve done it before, and the NHL always wants to do its own “national championships” at this time- why not start the season at this point?). Yeah, the pains may be hard to take, but once teams realize the boon more international games brings, all those hardships won’t be so hard anymore.

-DG


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-DG

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